Flanked by state lawmakers and small business owners at Blue Gill Quality Food in Gainesville, the state’s Chief Financial Officer, Jimmy Patronis, called for “meaningful liability protections” for business owners to protect them from the threat of lawsuits related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Patronis, whose office oversees insurance regulation in the state, has been one of the leading voices over the last several months on the issue.
“As a former small business owner myself, I’ve spent most of my life in the restaurant industry and I know how hard it is to make payroll on a good day, much less when hampered by the financial impacts of COVID-19,” Patronis said at the event. “Since the pandemic began, I’ve spoken to countless businesses owners and held meetings with Chambers of Commerce statewide and they all share the same open-ended liability fears and concerns. We must allow businesses owners who follow the proper health and safety guidelines to be protected from frivolous lawsuits and sue and settle tactics that will stifle our state’s recovery.”
The push for liability protection comes on the heels of a coalition of Florida business groups yesterday releasing their own recommendations to the state legislature on how to get the state’s economy on a path toward recovery as quickly as possible once the COVID-19 pandemic begins to wind down.
But while Republican leaders in the Florida House and Senate are generally supportive of the proposal to reduce business owner liabilities connected to COVID-19, incoming Senate President Wilton Simpson has made it clear he won’t support any bill offering blanket immunity to wreckless business owners.
“Any legislation we would pass, I cannot imagine that we are going to let people off the hook for negligence,” Simpson told reporters at a recent press conference. “I don’t think you ever in any condition put a blanket statement that no one would have any liability associated with COVID.”
Patronis appears to be in general agreement with that sentiment. His office published three guiding principles that he says should form the backbone of liability reform legislation, the very first of which sets out that “businesses must do right by employees and customers.” He then unpacks the idea further:
In these unprecedented times much is being asked of every American to fight the spread of the COVID-19 virus, and both large and small businesses alike must do their part to fight its spread. If the Florida Legislature is to take steps to protect businesses from legal liabilities, there should be an expectation that business owners have taken reasonable steps to ensure they’re watching out for the health and safety of their employees and customers. Not only does promoting good behavior by businesses to combat the Coronavirus make good business sense, but also it sends a message to the nation that Florida can both open its economy and keep people safe.
The principles are an attempt by Patronis to strike a balance between protecting customers and employees from exposure to danger while also allowing maximum freedom within the economy. The compromise allows business owners to make responsible decisions on their own without interference from government, while the proposed legislation will help prevent frivolous lawsuits from attorneys seeking a quick, out-of-court settlement that could choke off the state’s economic recovery and force businesses to close.
“No doubt, unless we take action to protect our small businesses, we’ll see big problems: businesses will close, insurance rates will continue to grow, and critical services will get squeezed. I’m confident that we can pass meaningful liability protections and add Florida to the list of 21 other states that have enacted some sort of liability shields for businesses. We have to support our small businesses, we have to support our employees who want to get back to work, and we have to work together to get Florida’s economy back on its feet.”
Several members of the Florida legislature joined Patronis at the event on Tuesday, including State Senator Keith Perry and State Representative Joe Harding, both of whom support the proposal.